Naval History and Heritage Command

Naval History and Heritage Command

Captain Hutchison I. Cone, Aide-de-Camp for Aviation, Staff of Vice Admiral William S. Sims, Commander, United States Naval Forces Operating in European Waters, to Vice Admiral William S. Sims

D U B L I N    C A S T L E    H O S P I T A L.

Dublin, Ireland,        

20 October, 1918.  

M E M O R A N D U M.

          My experience on board the Irish Mail Steamer LEINSTER on October the 10th, 1918, when that vessel was torpedoed off Dublin Harbor.1

          I board[ed] the Leinster at the dock at Kingstown about twenty-five minutes of nine and immediately upon boarding her I went to the smoking room, sought out a seat, deposited my overcoat in it, got a life preserver from a package there, put that in the seat next to me, deposited my grip in the smoking room and my steamer rug on top of the life buoy. Thus having my personal belongings disposed of, I went out on deck, the smoking room being on the upper deck and, as I remember it, fairly well aft.

          On deck I found people coming on board in large numbers, especially British soldiers from leave and among these British soldiers were a large number of Australian and New Zealand soldiers. I finally sat down on a bench just outside the smoking room and sat there for some time watching the embarkation of the different passengers and during this time noted several women with children come on board and one in particular, a beautiful little girl about two years old, with blonde curls. Naturally, I did not learn these people’s names. One very attractive girl with a V.A.D.2 uniform sat next to me on the bench. I noted during this time that several American bluejackets with white hats boarded the steamer. I should estimate about five or six came under my observation. They were all in good spirits and nice clean looking boys. Before the steamer left things began to look crowded on deck and a woman with a child and basket evidently needed my seat, so I gave it to her and went back into the smoking room where I occupied the seat I had reserved for myself, got out of my grip a Saturday Evening Post and settled myself to read a story.

          I paid no particular attention as to when the ship steamed out of the slip, but things seemed to be going normally and I had been reading for probably half an hour or more when someone rushed into the smoking room door, and at exactly the same time the ship felt as if she had hit something forward a terrific blow. Of course I knew what that meant – that it was a torpedo – so I got up and the first thing I did was to carefully put on and adjust my life belt and securely tie it to my body outside of my uniform coat. My overcoat, grip and steamer rug I left in the smoking room and went out on deck.

          By this time there was some excitement, many women were crying, and of course, the obvious thing to do was to try to assist these excited people and also get the boats lowered. I noted aft, that there were just as many people working with the boats as could, so I went forward, as the vessel was sinking by the head and it seemed advisable to get out the forward boats as soon as possible. In going forward I met a few of the crew who had come up from the engine room and among them a fireman who was in a pitiful state – he evidently had both legs badly broken by the explosion and was otherwise mutilated about the face and bleeding profusely. This man was, of course, very much excited and begging every one to save him.

          I went in the bridge first and there found the Captain3 perfectly calm and clear headed and upon my offering my services, he suggested that I assist in getting out the forward boats on the bridge deck. At that time there was a boat immediately under us going in and two or three men trying to get it rigged out. One of the ship’s officers, myself and six or eight men that we collected around succeeded in rigging it out. In the meantime one of the boats on the port side had been rigged out and lowered into the water, but was no where near filled with people. As soon as we got this boat on the starboard side rigged out I saw that there was a sailor at each fall4 and then lowered it down level with the main deck and women and children principally, but some men, climbed into it until it was full. In the meantime I went back up on the bridge and reported to the Captain that the boat from the port side was no where near full and he called it back along side and I believe that the people in the boat made an honest effort to get back and get more passengers. At any rate, they made some effort.

          I then went back down the ladder to the bridge deck and was casting off the lashings of the small box life rafts on this deck when a second torpedo hit, which seemed to me to be directly under me. Of course, it could not be absolutely under me, as I was very near the middle of the ship, just abaft the chart house. At any rate, it took the deck upon which I was standing up with it, and it seemed to me that I went up a mile high, but of course went only a few feet. In coming down I got entangled in the signal halyards hanging along the after side of the pilot house and I have a distinct recollection of the trouble I had in disentangling myself from those halyards while at the same time water from the column of water thrown up by the torpedo seemed to be coming down for an interminable time. Finally, when that was cleared away I found the deck practically disrupted where I had been standing and also that I could not stand on either leg. In fact, my right leg, when I put it down on the deck just doubled up under me and I could bear any weight on the left leg. I also noted that the ship was going down by the head very rapidly, so rapidly in fact that the water was just about level with the bridge deck. I saw no signs of the boat and its occupants that we had just loaded at the starboard side.

          In conversation with the Captain the first time I went to the bridge he told me that he was very much distressed, but he was afraid that the wireless had not gotten through that we had been torpedoed, as the wireless was one of the first things damaged. I asked him, also, if he thought that the forward bulkheads would hold, in which case we should be able to get the boats and passengers away if there were sufficient boats to hold them, but observed that the German would probably hit us with another torpedo before we could do this, with which opinion the Captain was in agreement. The Captain also stated that he did not have enough life boats to hold anywhere near all the passengers.

          Up to the time the Leinster was hit and I came out of the smoking room I had not noticed that there was any particular sea running, as I don’t remember that the ship had any unusual motion on her, but when I came out of the smoking room and started forward I noted with dismay that there was a very heavy sea running, which, of course, added greatly to the complications.

          To go back to my position on the bridge, when I saw that the bridge deck was actually getting down to the level of the water and that the seas were coming over, and I found I could not walk to the edge, I simply laid down and rolled overboard. When I got into the water I found that it bore my legs in a perfectly comfortable position and I immediately made efforts to swim away from the ship as it was evident that she would stay afloat only a few seconds longer. When I kicked my legs I found that they were perfectly useless and I realized that it would be doing them bad service by kicking them around, so I attempted to paddle away with my hands, but had not succeeded in getting further than a few feet away, not more than twenty or twenty-five at a maximum, when the ship went down, her stern cocked up in the air, and my last impression of the ship was a lot of people sliding down the hull from the stern to get into the water. I don’t believe there was any particular suction. If there had been, it most assuredly would have affected me for I was at this time being supported by a life belt only and a small grating. There seemed to be ample floating material around of all descriptions, including a small type of life raft built exactly like a box, and in my judgment perfectly worthless for lifesaving purposes. However, I spied one of those rafts and went to it and found that due to the condition of my legs I could not pull myself up on top of it, so I simply hooked my arm into the rope lanyard that was looped around its side and determined to fight it out in that position. This left my other arm free to push away any heavy timbers and debris that the sea might burp up against me.

          At this early time there were a great many lifeless bodies floating around who must have been killed by the explosion because I particularly noted the large number of dead bodies afloat only a few minutes, certainly not more than five, after the sinking of the vessel. I had been on this life raft only a short while when I spied an American bluejacket who proved to be a boy named Russell from Whiddy Island, floating in a white circular life buoy. I motioned to him and he came over to me and I suggested to him that he get up on the life raft as it was better than the way he was rigged. He climbed up on the life raft, taking his circular buoy with him and he seemed to fare pretty well. At this time a civilian dressed very scantily and whose name I have not been able to learn, swam up and climbed up on the other end of the raft. These two young men were very considerate and fine to me.

          I had been swinging to this rope in the water for only a few minutes when it carried away and I had to hook my arm into another rope. The boys on the raft continuously tried to cheer me up and at this time attempted to pull me up on the raft, but the thing was so small that it only resulted in turning it over. In fact, it was nothing like large enough for three people to sit on and would immediately turn over if they tried it. I waited as patiently as I could for any signs of craft coming out to rescue us and kept asking the fellows on the raft, who could see much further than I, as with a heavy sea running I could see no distance away. Finally one of them sent up a lusty cheer and said there certainly was a torpedo boat coming. This cheered me up greatly and I made up my mind to stick it out, although I was getting pretty weak. As there were a large number of life belts floating around, I took one of these belts and jerked the lanyard off from it and used this lanyard to lash my left arm to the rope around the life raft and then looped the life belt itself under my right arm so that in case I went unconscious my head would be a little more secure in floating above the water line. Things began to get a little hazy to me about this time, but finally a destroyer was right close aboard and the two boys on the raft were constantly pointing out to me this boat and cheering me up and telling me “there she was”, etc. I finally saw her myself, but the sight of this destroyer is the last thing I remember, as my next conscious moment was when I woke up in a bunk in the officers’ quarters of the motor launch that finally rescued me. I am to find out the details of the rescue later, but do not remember a single thing about how I was taken out of the water, or anything concerning it.

          When I came to I was in one of the officers’ bunks of motor launch Number 154 Royal Navy. I was covered with blankets and absolutely freezing. I was watched over there with the greatest care by a bluejacket who when I regained consciousness was pouring a little Scotch whiskey out of a bottle between my lips. He gave me a big drink of the Scotch whiskey and went and got some peacoats and piled a couple of them on top of my blankets. I still was practically frozen and had a succession of very severe chills. There were two or three women in the compartment, sitting on bunks opposite me, who had been taken from the water and who were wrapped up apparently not much the worse for their experience and they were talking and sympathizing with me in my predicament. I asked how long they thought we would be getting in and where we were bound for, and the bluejackets told me we would be in Kingstown at the dock in about ten minutes. He watched over me constantly until we arrived at the dock and then it was only a very few minutes before I was taken out of the bunk, helping myself up through the hatch as much as I could, laid on a stretcher and thoroughly wrapped up in blankets.

          There was a doctor in a British Khaki uniform that attended me here, made a cursory examination and made some notes and then put me into an ambulance where I think I was the only person and started me immediately post haste for the hospital. I was in a semi-conscious state during this trip, but generally it seemed to take an interminable time to reach the hospital. I remember their pulling me out of the ambulance but do not remember much more until I regained a certain amount of consciousness while lying on a bed in the ward that I am now occupying in the Dublin Castle Red Cross Hospital.

          There were a number of doctors and nurses around me attempting to get my clothes off and after much exertion during which I did my best to help them, finally they got my clothes off wrapped me up in blankets galore, gave me large drinks of whisky and rolled my bed in front of a roaring fire. I had the distinct impression while attempting to get off the deck of the ship that both my legs were broken, as I could not bear the slightest weight on either; in fact, the right one simply doubled up under me when I attempted to stand. On examination at the hospital the doctors told me that I was suffering from the worst kind of shock and that I had the right leg badly broken with a compound communatated [i.e., comminuted] fracture5 between the knee and the ankle, and the left leg probably the bone cracked in the ankle. This diagnosis turned out to be practically correct when the X-rays were taken.

• • • • • • • • • •

NOTE:     The following information was gleaned from Lieutenant Edward Unwin, R.N.V.R. [Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve] Commanding Officer of H.M.S. Motor Launch 154, who picked me out of the water.

          It seems when the motor launch got up near me they noted that I was practically unconscious and would soon pass away, so they threw a line to one of the men on our raft and pulled it over along side of the motor launch. I was noticed to be between the raft and the motor launch with the launch rolling very heavily, making it almost impossible to get me from the water. Lieutenant Unwin was informed by one of the men on the raft with me that both of my legs were broken and hence he instructed them to use as great care as possible in getting me on board, and he expressed the opinion that they never would have gotten me on board had it not been for the fact that one of his crew, Leading Seaman Alexander Young, jumped overboard, passed a line around me under me arms and asisted in numerous ways in getting me on board the motor launch. When on board they were confronted with the problem of getting me down the very small hatch to a bunk, with my legs dangling as they were and the boat rolling to deeply. The crew of the launch finally succeeded in accomplishing this and made me as comfortable as possible, as I have noted when I regained consciousness.

          Lieutenant Unwin states that once when he visited me in the cabin of the motor launch I was delirious and was asking in a wild voice if I were alive, or words to that effect, all of which, of course, is beyond my memory.

          In order that my recollections may be of possible value to someone else, I am going on record here the things I noted that it appears to me could have been better on board the steamer LEINSTER than proved to be the case.

     1.   Life belts were not sufficient in number to hold anywhere near all the passengers.

     2.   The boats were not rigged out, but were rigged inboard over the deck and in my opinion should have been rigged out as they are in crossing the Channel.

     3.   There were a large number of life rafts about the deck in my vicinity, all of which were held down by lashings and the lashings finally secured by pelican hooks. I was engaged in going around casting off these pelican hooks when the second torpedo blew up. These rafts were very unhandy as a life saving appliance, although I am bound to say one of them saved my life. In the first place, thet [i.e., they] are a perfect box shape, about six or seven feet long, three feet broad by twelve or fifteen inches deep, and with a small rope lanyard looped along the side half way of its depth all the way around, with a little piece of cork in the middle of the loop. The first loop that I caught on the life raft that I secured carried away and the rope was undoubtedly rotten. I must say, however, that I noted no case where rotten falls or ropes in other parts of the ship caused any accident.

     4.   There were large numbers of life preservers on board, of the type that you stick your head throughand then lash around your body so as to keep your head well out of the water. This proved with me to be a most excellent type. The rule that all people should wear their life belts was not carried out and naturally caused some confusion by all hands putting on life belts at the last moment. As a matter of fact, I saw several Officers of the ship using their valuable time in showing excited passengers how to put on their life belts after the torpedo had blown up.

     5.   In addition to the life belts, life rafts and boats there was a large amount of wreckage of all kinds; boxes, gratings timbers etc., floating around – ample to support the weight of every person on board if properly distributed. I fear that this wreckage caused the death of a good many perple [i.e., people] in the water by striking them on account of the high sea that was running. My most vivid recollection was the large number of dead bodies that were floating around in the water very soon after the explosion of the second torpedo and I firmly believe that a large percentage of those lost were killed by the explosion of the two torpedoes.

Source Note: TL, DLC-MSS, William Sims Papers, Box 52.

Footnote 2: Voluntary Aid Detachment, a British organization made up of civilian nurses who ministered to wounded services members, both in the field and back in the United Kingdom.

Footnote 3: Capt. William Birch.

Footnote 4: A fall was a type of davit used to lower lifeboats into the water.

Footnote 5: A comminuted fracture occurs when the bone breaks into several pieces.

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